We're delighted to present the first in a series of specially commissioned blogs written by young people and providing different perspectives on this year's Inverness Film Festival.
Ahead of viewing The Nightingale, Lindsay Linning explores why on screen representations of rape are so problematic and how sexual violence can be more constructively portrayed on screen.
It’s been a long time since I’ve walked into a film knowing that it contains graphic scenes of sexual violence. It always struck me as peculiar that TV shows, films and documentaries depicting true stories of violent crimes are most watched by female audiences. The weird part is that it’s also females whose dead, mutilated, bloodied and tortured bodies we see on screen as targets of these violent crimes. Women victims with thin, white, ‘beautiful’ bodies with no personality attached, without character development, without a voice, typically seen through the male gaze.
I try to avoid watching shows or films which contain depictions of sexual violence where possible. Sometimes I don’t want to be reminded of it. Violence and the threat of violence, specifically of a sexual nature, are very real aspects of daily life for all women in both the public and private spheres – not least for transwomen and women of colour. It can strip women of their agency. Being reminded of this on screen is not always welcome. But primarily I don’t watch this content because I am often left triggered and reeling from how and why sexual violence is depicted.
Men direct most films. They also happen to be far less likely to have experienced sexual violence than women or transwomen. How might this shape the representation of sexual violence on screen? Through whose creative eyes do we bear witness to sexually traumatic scenes on screen? It’s worth questioning whether a scene of rape works as a truly functional and constructive plot device within the fabric of the story. Time and time again these scenes are gratuitous, serving the purposes only of sensationalising the male perpetrator’s character and often sexualising the act of rape itself at the hands of a male director with no lived experience of living as a woman within a sexually violent culture.
In films, how often do we see the development and exploration of the rape survivor’s character and life? Sexual violence was more prolific in certain historical contexts, true, but regardless of time and place, it does a disservice to portray the rape of women in isolation. It is dehumanising and reminds us that female characters on screen are considered disposable. It begs the question of whether it is right that male directors have explored and continue to explore so freely what is primarily a female experience of trauma. Women, regardless of historical context, lead and have led complex lives. Sexual violence is part of the fabric of everyday life for women and girls. The threat of rape is ever-present in our society. Gripping your keys when heading home late at night? A product of rape culture. Your daughter crossing the road to avoid a threatening group of men or boys? A product of rape culture. It’s everywhere. We navigate a hostile environment as best we can.
When directors only explore how an act of sexual violence is inflicted upon a target as an object and not the experience of the act for the target, they fail rape survivors. If a film deals with a male rapist and a female target, the complexity of the narrative that surrounds the male perpetrator needs to be counteracted by producing far more complex narratives around the female character who is the target of sexual violence. In this way, the female experience is not minimised or normalised and we become invested as viewers in her experience. We as the audience do not become desensitised to the atrocities of sexual violence. It ultimately becomes a question of responsibility to survivors of rape past and present who have been systematically silenced and not believed.
The Nightingale won’t be an easy watch. I have heard that people have walked out of cinemas in disgust during screenings. But my curiosity has been piqued because the director is a woman. Sexually violent scenes shouldn’t be written out of films. But more nuanced, sensitive portrayals of it are called for so that current conversations around sexual violence can be continued constructively on screen. Let’s advocate for a long-awaited shift in how this violence has traditionally been presented to us. Perhaps The Nightingale is a good place to start.
The Nightingale screens as part of the Inverness Film Festival on Sun 10 Nov.
This blog was written by:
Supported by Film Hub Scotland, part of the BFI’s Film Audience Network, and funded by Creative Scotland and Lottery funding from the BFI.